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Charmed Life

Hole Story

Christopher Myers

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 12/5/2001

Ever been to India? Ever stood slack-jawed before the Taj Mahal?

Me neither. But even those of us who haven't toured the South Asian subcontinent have stepped on little slabs of India. That's because a goodly number of the city's 31,000-plus manhole covers were forged there. Look at the next metal disk you stride across and see if it doesn't say india on the rim.

Most folks rarely ponder the metallic portals to the under-asphalt netherworld--unless the 300-pound disks happen to detonate several feet into the air, as a trio of them did downtown this summer. (The Maryland Department of the Environment suspects that the ignition of sewer-borne tripropylene from the earlier Howard Street train tunnel disaster was to blame.) Personally, I've been doing a lot of looking down these past few weeks, as part of a plunge--figurative, not literal--into the world of manholes. No joke. The overseas origin of some of the covers is just one the facts I've discovered.

And I'm not alone in my newfound manhole mania. The introduction to Mimi Melnick's book--that's right, book--Manhole Covers (MIT Press, 1994) calls them the "secret cousins of coins." Numerous Web sites display photos of old and ornate covers. Indeed, a group in Russia is collecting such photos for a project called Sewers of the World, Unite! ( Even the snooty French are into them, as a trip to makes clear. Some of Baltimore's handsome covers are nearly a century old. Many bear cryptic markings and initials, making the "secret cousins" perfect fodder for the streetscape archeologist.

First, some manhole basics. Why are most of the covers round? That's easy: so they can't accidentally fall through the hole during removal (that, and so they can be easily rolled around). But in Baltimore we also have square, rectangular, and even octagonal covers. They vary in size too--some are four feet across, others barely big enough for a hand to slip through their openings.

If anyone in Mobtown can be called the city's manhole expert, it's Baltimore Office of Transportation engineer John Burch, who has spent 37 years in and around the portals. He says some of our oldest covers are the paved-over wordless ones. They provide access to the 5,000-odd miles of pipes and crawlspaces that make up the city's subterranean conduit system, which was first developed in 1903 to house electrical cables and today is also home to fiber optics. (Companies using the conduit are charged an annual per-foot rental fee.) Modern manholes for this system are labeled dpw conduit, and are the most common covers in town. If manhole spotting can be likened to bird-watching, these are the house sparrows.

Most covers are self-explanatory, such as those reading water meter, or steam, or storm sewer. (I do love the misleading name of those emblazoned sanitary sewer.) Burch had to help me with the numerous small, rectangular covers you see along sidewalks reading mes hb. It stands for Mechanical Electrical Service Hand Box; they house wiring for streetlights and are anywhere from 40 to 60 years old. Those reading ec hb are even older, referring to the Electrical Commission, which was charged with electrifying street lighting more than 80 years ago.

One fanciful cover seen fairly frequently downtown is decorated with five-pointed stars and reads horton hydrant high pressure fire service. For the scoop on these I turned to Stephen Heaver, curator of the Fire Museum of Maryland in Lutherville. "They're part of the improvements implemented after the great 1904 fire," he says. Named for former city fire chief George Horton, beneath them lies a valve capable of delivering 20,000 gallons of water a minute. Developed between 1909 and 1912, Heaver says "they saved the city on more than one instance" before becoming obsolete in 1978.

While some of our lids are imported, many are home-grown. There's a good chance the water-meter cover in front of your house bears the name of its maker: James J. Lacy Co. This was a Fells Point ironworks launched in 1865 by a quintet of Civil War veterans. They first started making manhole and lampposts and other municipal metal goods in the late 19th century.

I was really stumped by the two-by-three-foot steel rectangle emblazoned p.&f.a.t. that I spied on a Little Italy street corner. My first guess was that the "T" stood for "transit," and that it was a vestige of a former streetcar firm. Not so, Burch tells me. The letters stand for Police and Fire Alarm Telegraph, an ancient (90 years or more) and long-unused chain of emergency call boxes.

As it turns out, the most mysterious manhole is also among the more beautiful. There's one on the corner Lexington Street and Guilford Avenue behind City Hall. The three-foot-diameter cover sports inch-wide holes filled with baubles of purple glass (well, some glass remains anyway). "I don't have clue what they are, but they have to be ancient," Burch says.

So, have you seen a manhole cover you can't fathom? Drop me an e-mail and I'll see if my sources can figure it out. Or, just snap a picture of it and send it off to Russia. If not love--or the bomb--then maybe it's our sewers that will bring us together.

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